Friday, May 30, 2008

English Bandits Suck

Learning Chinese is hard work, and it's especially hard if you're a white person living in Taiwan. Why? Because no one will speak Chinese with you! Now be warned -- this post is a bit of a rant.

As you all know, the main reason why I hardly ever post anymore (although I want to try and start posting on the weekends again) is because I'm busy studying Chinese. It sucks, but it has to be done. I'm beginning to question whether it's worth it or not though. No matter where I go, I have to fight to be able to speak Chinese. Yes, I know I can really only speak for Taipei, and I'm also aware that many foreigners have different experiences. But for me and my husband, it's definitely a struggle to practice Chinese. Here is what I typically get when I speak Chinese:

A) Shy giggles and an English response.
B) They ask me in English if I can speak Chinese.
C) They ignore the fact that I spoke Chinese and continue speaking to me in English.
D) They praise my Chinese and tell me it's so wonderful when I know it actually isn't.
E) A bombardment of questions that I've been asked a million times before (i.e. How long have you lived here? Are you an English teacher? Are you American? Do you like Taiwan? Why would you leave America for Taiwan?)
D) Sometimes they continue talking to me in Chinese like a normal person.

The other day I was on my scooter at a stoplight. A guy pulled up next to me, and thinking that I was Taiwanese, started asking me for directions. I understood him perfectly, and I lifted the visor of my helmet so that I could look him in the eye. He then proceeded to gasp in fear and apologize to me profusely in English. I told him in Chinese that I would be happy to help him, and asked him if he could please repeat his question. He refused and drove away. What was that all about?

Usually when I go to 7-11, the cashier will start to speak to me in Chinese. However, he/she usually speaks very quickly, so I often ask him/her in Chinese to please repeat what they said. That's when they decide to pounce on me and try to suck every bit of English knowledge out of my body. They almost never just repeat themselves in Chinese. I get the feeling like they're happy when I don't understand them so that they can speak English to me. There have been a few times when I would almost swear that a passerby bumped into me on purpose just so they would have a chance to say "sorry" or "excuse me" in English, but maybe I'm just becoming paranoid.

I also hate the fact that everyone assumes that I'm an American English teacher, and I hate even more the fact that in my particular case they happen to be right. The other day I was in an elevator, and I heard a little girl say to her mom in Chinese, "Look! There's an English teacher in here!" Then she started speaking English to me, but she was so cute so I conceded in this case.

However, it is DEFINITELY NOT CUTE in my freaking Chinese class! The Chinese class that I pay money to go to and speak Chinese! Currently, I am the only person from an English speaking country in my class. About four of the students in the class quite often ask me in the middle of a lesson what the English translations are for certain Chinese words. I have to wonder why it's important to know what the English words are in our Chinese class, especially seeing that our class is a level 3 class. I am now afraid to raise my hand and tell the teacher I don't understand a word, because there's this guy in the back of the room that will yell out what the English word is. The other day, one of the Korean students looked at me and said "bird" (the teacher was saying something about a bird at the time). Umm, okay. What was I supposed to do, applaud? I looked at him and said "Niao". Then he said, quite authoritatively mind you, "Americans like to ride mountain bikes." All of this was in English of course. I told him in Chinese that maybe some Americans like to ride mountain bikes, but not all of them do. Then he just looked at me and said "Lance Armstrong," and he had a smug look on his face like he had just won an argument or something. Then our teacher started talking about holidays, and then the guy in the back yelled across the room in English, "Hey! The fourth of July is an American holiday!" Wow. Thanks for telling me, buddy.

Now, to be fair, my teacher almost never speaks English to our class. She's actually an excellent teacher, and almost no one in my level 2 class spoke English. It's just that there's a bunch of new students in our level 3 class that won't leave me alone. I've tried telling the students to please not speak English to me, but it hasn't seemed to work. So today I asked the teacher to please tell people not to speak English. We'll see what happens.

Here's what I've figured out -- if you're white and you live in Taipei, it's going to be hard to find people who are willing to speak Chinese with you. There are a few exceptions. For one thing, there are some age groups and social classes that prefer speaking in Chinese. There are certain places that I can go to and get a good amount of uninterrupted Chinese practice such as traditional markets and night markets. There's also always the option of leaving Taipei, but then a lot of people may speak Taiwanese so you still may not get that much Chinese practice.

There is another way to avoid people speaking English to you (although it doesn't always work), and that is to show absolutely no hesitation when you speak Chinese. If you are at the point where you can speak Chinese extremely competently without hesitation and without having to ask people to repeat themselves, people won't really have an excuse to speak English to you. I've noticed that people who have excellent Chinese don't get hit up by "English bandits" as much. I'm now beginning to wonder whether it's more beneficial to my Chinese learning to just pretend like I know what people are talking about so that they'll continue speaking to me in Chinese.

There is another option, which is to lie about what country you come from. I'm not sure if I'm okay with this morally, but it is tempting. Of course because I'm white people will automatically assume that I'm American and begin speaking to me in English, but at this point I can give them a confused look and say "Bu hao yi si, wo bu hui yingwen." They will then ask me in Chinese what country I come from (after they get over the shock of meeting a white person who isn't American and doesn't speak English), and at this point I would have to name some obscure country that the person I'm talking to most certainly has not visited. My husband and I have discussed what I could say, just for fun, and we settled on Moldova. This is a small country in Eastern Europe next to Romania, and my husband (who is an International Relations major) had never even heard of it until this song came out. So far, I've learned how to say "I am Moldovan" in Chinese, and I'm learning a few phrases in Romanian and studying some facts about Moldova. It's too bad everyone in my Chinese class already knows I'm American.

The going is slow, and I have to fight tooth and nail for every bit of progress I make with my Chinese, but it is possible. Here is a picture of my first test score in the 90s (barely) in my level three class (but this test was somewhat easier than the other ones so that makes the victory taste slightly less sweet):

Take that, English bandits!


  1. Congratulations on your amazing progress!!!

    This post is another reason you should move to the South! Many people here would love to speak Chinese to you! ... including my English students and friends :).

    I also have the same issue in my Chinese class with foreign students. One day at a break a woman from another country told me she wishes I'd ask more questions in English in class because she wanted to improve her English... I told her that wasn't really the purpose of our going to Chinese class, ha.

    Hang in there.. I truly think there are people who would enjoy practicing with you!

  2. all you can do is ignore people. say "mei guanchee" with no emotional attachments, exactly how a local person would say it to you. completely ignore those dumb comments such as "lance armstrong" and so forth. those people are trying to impress you and they'll stop when you aren't being impressed.

  3. Sandy,

    I can't believe someone actually asked you to speak English in a Chinese class! Why don't people just go join an English class if that's what they really want?


    I know I should ignore them, but it's just so darn annoying!

  4. Cahleen,

    Great post! English bandits, I wish I'd thought of that. I'm lucky I'm of Asian descent, so I act like an "undercover American" and pretend to be Taiwanese.

    I also liked what you said in another post, bragging about how cheap transportation is in Taipei. That and universal health care are two big reasons why I continue to live here.

    For more Taipei bragging material, check out this article I wrote:

  5. Marcus,

    Thanks! We love in a great place, don't we?

  6. I feel for you, I really do. For the past 5 years the biggest problem in my life has been english bandits. I still haven't solved it cause I have to much of this like American altruistic niceness in me? Like I owe someone something? Trying everyday to get it out of me and become a blunt prick. Anyway I would suggest instead of saying that you CAN'T speak English, that you WON'T speak Engilsh. If you get any argument back like you owe them, tell them they're more than welcome to go to the US. Also throw out some 入鄉隨俗's at them --- that's hard to argue against.

  7. What memories this blog brought to my mind. Sometimes I miss Taiwan! This is definitely one thing that I don't miss.
    I remember riding on the MRT one day, and a lady wanted to talk to me very badly. I wanted to read my book very badly. She stood on her tip toes, reached her arm over my book, and threw her business card into my novel.
    I promptly threw it in the trash bin when I got off the train...
    Stupid English Bandit!

  8. Unfortunately there are English bandits/leeches and bullies all over the world :( But fortunately, these are only a minority of people :) Don't get discouraged!

    I would recommend the following:

    1) work as hard as possible on the local language - the better you get, the fewer people will switch to English

    2) politely ask people straight out why they are speaking English to you. If they have difficulty understanding you in the local language, you may learn how to improve. If people are speaking to me in English just because they want to practice, I reply that I don't mind speaking English sometimes, but I would appreciate the chance to speak the local language like everyone else and dislike being treated abnormally just because I come from an English speaking country. This has usually worked for me.

  9. Hi I must say that I really enjoyed reading your blogs. You should publish all your stories one day. Cheers.

  10. Justin,

    It's good to see I'm not alone. And by the way, I love your site!


    I can't believe that lady did that to you! Actually, sadly, I can believe it. One time I was really intent on reading my novel on the MRT and this lady interrupted me just to tell me that the author's name was the same as hers. And????


    Good advice. I'm working hard on the local language, that's for sure. It would be a lot easier if more Taiwanese people were willing to speak Chinese with me.


    That is possibly one of the sweetest compliments anyone has ever given me. Thanks! =)

  11. People here are ignorant, PERIOD. Here's an idea, just give the people who speak English to you the same exact treatment back, i.e. "哇 你很會說英文啊! 好厲害喔!!! of course, say this with a very exaggerated tone; or, just ignore them...You are no one's private English teacher...


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